Raising my kids bilingually was of paramount importance to me, so for the first three years of their lives, they were at home with Michelle, our wonderful babysitter from Oregon. I wanted them to be around native English speakers early on, knowing they would learn German in preschool.
At home, my kids were shielded from the outside world – and so was I. I was blissfully unaware of how the Germans’ tendency to overengineer things extends to parenting, too.
My first shock came when Frau Berger, the stern woman who ran our Kindergarten or preschool, asked me if I had bought a Kindergartentasche or “preschool purse” for my child. Oh no, I thought, I don’t want my daughter to be the only one without a “preschool purse.” What kind of a mother am I? So I ran to the store, asked for help, and bought a Kindergartentasche. It turns out that a backpack works, too, especially if there is a pink unicorn on it.
This was a hint of things to come.
Throughout the preschool years, I was confronted with little challenges that were deemed of paramount importance by all, correlating roughly with how annoying they were. For a fall festival called St. Martin’s involving lanterns, a procession in the dark, and the first outdoor nighttime buffet of my life, mothers had to bake “goose cookies.” These were not cookies made of goose (Germans do eat a lot of poultry, but let’s not get carried away), they were just shaped like a goose. This bird is associated with St. Martin, a French bishop who lived in Roman times whose hiding place in a barn was revealed by squawking geese.
I went to the store looking for a goose cookie-cutter, but couldn’t find one. I resorted to just winging it with limited success. I put my cookies on the buffet table when nobody was looking and found myself carefully inspecting the other ones. Sure enough, some moms had magically produced perfect, goose-shaped cookies.
But by this time, I was too frozen to care, since St. Martin’s is at the beginning of November. Traipsing through the arctic night winds and occasional rain, the only part of my body that was still warm was whichever ear was nearest my kids, who were whining and crying about the cold and requesting that I relight their lanterns every five minutes.
Other occasional special activities require the parents’ input, often in the form of food. After initially baking everything from scratch, I learned a trick from my friend Donna: put store-bought cookies or muffins in a Tupperware box and pawn them off as your own. This worked fine until another mom asked for the recipe. I simply kept “forgetting” to bring it until they finally gave up.
Once, we were requested to bring a single flower to form a bouquet for a preschool teacher’s birthday the next day. I learned this after coming home from work, making dinner, and was just putting the kids to bed. How could I possibly drum up a flower now?
But on our way out the door the next morning, I noticed the neighbor’s bright yellow forsythia bush was in full bloom. A branch hanging over the fence accidentally snapped off in my hand.
“Gosh, may as well take that to preschool for the bouquet,” I said.
My daughter cackled conspiratorially when she saw what I was doing. Years later, she still waxes nostalgic at the thought of that dastardly little deed. It’s so fun to see your mom do something bad.
After three years of preschool, I felt I had mastered the art. I knew when to bring cookies, flowers, and gifts, and had even learned the random Bavarian Christmas song (Es wird schon glei’ dumpa, if you care to test your prowess in Bavarian dialect).
Then came school. This brought a whole new level of challenges, just worse since many of them went unsaid. Preschool did have a schedule, but it mostly involved finishing your art project in time for Mother’s Day. If preschool was a three-speed bicycle, school was a Harley Davidson. The pace was so intense that first graders learned to read by Christmas, within just three months.
The expression “Lies, damned lies, and statistics” comes to mind with regard to German schools.
Except I would replace the “statistics” part with this: “You don’t have to help your kids with their homework.”
This is what a teacher told us at a parent-teacher conference when my kids started Gymnasium, the top-tier secondary school in Germany, which is far more rigorous than American high school, as I would later discover. I believed this statement about homework, figuring that a teacher would know what they were talking about. All the German moms nodded in agreement.
The next day, these same moms sat down with their kids at the kitchen table, spread out the schoolbooks, rolled up their sleeves, and said, “So, what have we got today?” Because almost all the kids need help from their parents – sometimes even from a professional tutor.
The extent to which mothers help their kids with school is reflected in the exclamation one sometimes hears: “We got a one on the test!” a one being the equivalent of an A.
The “we” – not “you” – speaks volumes.
I knew a mom who knew precisely when each exam was coming up.
“You might want to review your English vocabulary – it’s been a while since you’ve had a pop quiz!”
Pop quiz? They do pop quizzes?
On top of all the support for schoolwork, this supermom’s idea of failure was not baking four different kinds of Christmas cookies in time for the first of Advent. This was extremely important because…well, I’m not sure, actually.
In seventh grade, the kids spend a week in Schullandheim, an official school camp. The Saturday my daughter left, the weather was hot, so naturally as soon as the bus hit the highway, it started to rain and got very cold. I had packed all the wrong clothes for her. She came down with a bad cold, but thankfully so did all the others.
Did I really think that? I’m afraid I did.
But several years into Momdom I had mastered the art. Determined to get it right, I bought the most expensive, warmest boots on the market for my younger daughter for a 10-day mountain retreat. It was springtime, so the weather could be cold and rainy. At my insistence, she reluctantly agreed to take along these very uncool boots.
This was my moment of triumph! My daughter later confessed they had gone on a hike on a wet, muddy path. While she marched along merrily in her seven-league boots, the others kept slipping and sliding in flimsy sneakers. She was the only one with warm, dry feet at the end.
Victory, indeed! It didn’t make up for previous fiascos, but it was the start of an upward mothering trend. It just took me a while.